Arabidopsis thaliana, a common mustard weed across the Northern Hemisphere.
Image: Flickr/BlueRidgeKitties

 

Can Epigentics Help Crops Adapt to Climate Change?

Biologists are studying whether genes could be switched on and off in plants depending on climatic conditions

By Tiffany Stecker and ClimateWire

What if plants could switch their genes on and off, depending on which traits were important in a certain climate?

That’s what a team of researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies investigated in a series of studies on Arabidopsis thaliana, a common mustard weed across the Northern Hemisphere. Their work has led to a deeper understanding of a hidden layer of genetic diversity that could bring further advances in plant breeding and bioengineering.

The potential of switching genes on and off falls under the relatively new field of epigenetics (the prefix “epi” means “on top of” in Greek). It is the study of a pattern of chemical markers that regulate genes that sit over the DNA sequence. Genetic mutations are caused by changes in the pattern of nucleotide bases — the building blocks of DNA. Epigenomic modifications do not affect these building blocks and therefore don’t leave a permanent change in DNA.

Epigenetic modifications are, in theory, reversible. This means plants could temporarily activate or deactivate genes, said Joseph Ecker, a plant biologist at the Salk Institute and co-author of the compiled findings, published in the journal Nature yesterday.

Read more: Can Epigentics Help Crops Adapt to Climate Change?: Scientific American.

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